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Committed To India's Poor

Rajmohan Gandhi

A Project of Venu Madhav Govindu & Deepak Malghan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016, 388, 895


India’s national movement was special because it possessed social, economic and environmental dimensions in addition to the political goal of Independence. And special among its participants was Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa, born in 1892 into a talented family of Tamil Christians originating, close to India’s southernmost tip, in Palayamkottai. In Public Finance and India’s Poverty, his master’s thesis at New York’s Columbia University, Kumarappa wrote in 1928 that the state not only had to curb the profligacy of the individual, it had to limit the danger that wasteful use of resources ‘may entail on the coming generations’. In that same year, a man Kumarappa was yet to know, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, wrote in his journal Young India: God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic impact of one single tiny island kingdom today is keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of three hundred million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts (Young India, 20 Dec 1928). Obviously fated to meet, the two did so on 30 May 1929 in Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Some days after this meeting, Joseph, wearing a three-piece suit, arrived at a khadi bhandar in Mumbai’s Kalbadevi district and asked to be measured for a dhoti. Told by a salesman that dhotis came in fixed lengths, Kumarappa ordered six dhotis of recommended size as also six kurtas and six Gandhi caps. Thus equipped, he returned to Ahmedabad to teach at Gujarat Vidyapith, the national university started by Gandhi in 1920. Students were amused by the initially unsuccessful attempts of their new professor to sit cross-legged on the floor to eat with them, but Gandhi had observed (as he would later say to Madan Mohan Malaviya) that Kumarappa had come ‘ready-made’ to him (p. 48). From the start, Gandhi also knew (as he would later tell Kumarappa) that he had to ‘grab’ the Christian Tamilian (39fn). The lifelong relationship that ensued between the two was not however that of master-and-disciple. As Govindu and Maghlan put it, Kumarappa displayed, in relation to Gandhi, a ‘congruent but independent trajectory of intellectual and moral evolution’. Each affected the other. For example, the authors suggest persuasively that Gandhi’s radical proposal near the end of his life for the Congress to turn into a Lok Sevak Sangh was influenced by a Kumarappa article in March 1947 ...

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